Archive | August, 2012

Bodhnath & Swayambhunath – Eyes Without a Face

27 Aug

Bodhnath Stupa – Kathmandu (2007)

Bodhnath Stupa rises like a giant white bubble over the flat rooftops that dominate the Kathmandu skyline. I was told Bodhnath was about 6km away from Thamel and I set out to walk there. That walk turned out to be an odyssey through slope after slope, trash heaps, crossing streams, dodging traffic, and side-stepping little Nepali dogs. When I got to the temple complex, it was surrounded by a village and curio shops run by Tibetans. There were several Tibetan monasteries spread around the area and I saw many Tibetan monks with their maroon-colored robes going about their daily activities. I followed a few of them into their monastery. It sat on a hill above Bodhnath. I could hear trumpets, the low bass tones of other horns, the tinny chimes of cymbals, and the blasts of a gong. I walked up ladder to the second floor of the monastery towards where the music was coming from and I peered through the doorway. I saw the monks playing all these instruments themselves. The music was interspersed with chanting and prayer. The pageantry, musicianship, and vocalization were heavenly and were in such contrast to the austerity of other Buddhist monasteries. When the monks stopped their service, I went back outside and looked out over the railing. Bodhnath was below me.  What struck me was the precise geometry of Bodhnath’s design. The central bubbled-shaped Stupa is so dominant that one could easily overlook the plinth it sits upon. This is a terraced platform which is in the form of a “Mandala” featuring concentric blasts of whitewashed stones jutting at precise mirroring angles. There are 4 stairways leading up each level of the rising platforms to the Stupa. This was the first Mandala that I had ever seen and to appreciate its design you had to observe it from above — either from the monastery I was standing at or from one of the rooftop restaurants of the buildings encircling the Stupa. Mandala is a Sanskrit word for circle, but the circle is formed through a geometric diagram using a square with 4 gated entrances as the base. There is a circle contained in the center of this square and the square itself is contained with an outer circle.  Many different explanations exist for how the Mandala is invoked as part of the ritual and spiritual layering of Buddhist practice — especially in the Tibetan tradition which creates Mandalas in many different media, forms, and structures. In fact, one of the primary differences I have noticed between the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist tradition and the Theraveda Buddhist school is the Tibetan Mahayana’s emphasis on color, art, and geometric splendor to convey the Buddhist path. All of these things are captured within the Mandala which can take the form of a fresco, a 3-dimensional structure, or sandpainting.  The Stupa of Bodhnath stands in the center of the Mandala. It is not certain whether this Stupa contains a relic of the Buddha which was the original purpose behind the erection of these shrines. Some believe that a piece of bone of the Buddha may be contained within Bodhnath which was built around 600 AD. The  primary base of the Stupa consists of hundreds of prayer wheels that are spun by the faithful as they complete the “kora” or circuit around Bodhnath. Each of the wheels contain the following mantra written in Sanskrit on the outside: “Om Mani Padme Hum”. Instead of having to orally chant these words, one can invoke them through spinning the wheels which releases the mantra into the universe. This mantra contains 6 syllables and each word has a duality of meaning – a yin and yang.  The current (14th) Dalai Lama has explained this mantra like this: “…the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.”  When I read the mantra and the Dalai Lama’s explanation, it becomes apparent to me that the mantra acts like a “greatest hits of the Dharma”. This mantra sums up the essence of the Buddha’s journey – renunciation, the middle path, spiritual practice, and attainment of enlightenment – but personalizes it to the individual who chants it.  This idea that anyone can become a Buddha is central to the Mahayana tradition and the mantra encapsulates this concept within a mere 6 syllables.

The Eyes of Bodhnath

The most striking aspect of Bodhnath are the eyes. There are a pair of eyes painted on each of the 4 sides of the main Stupa. The depiction of eyes are unique to Tibetan Buddhist temples. None of the Pagodas, Dagobas, or Stupas that I have seen anywhere else in the world have had any human characteristics depicted on their exteriors. The core reason for the depiction of eyes comes from its connection to Mahayana Buddhist practice. The ultimate goal of the Mahayana tradition is to not focus on the attainment of enlightenment only for the self, but to devote oneself to the enlightenment of all. Any person who is moved by such great compassion and who lives his life in the pursuit of attaining enlightenment or Buddhahood for others is a bodhisattva. So, the depiction of the eyes on Bodhnath (or Swayambhunath – see below) is to broadcast the omnipresence of the Buddha’s teachings so that anyone can receive them. These all-seeing, never blinking eyes symbolize the universality of the Dharma which is to be shared with all people. There are no ears depicted because the Buddha did not want to hear the praise and chants of his followers, and instead of  a nose, there is a squiggle placed below and in the middle of the eyes. This is the Sanskrit representation of the number one, and, as its placement suggests, signifies the middle path.  Above each pair of eyes are 2 thick black eyebrows and in between them sits a third eye. This conveys the meditative practice Buddhism encourages in order to help purify the mind, body, and speech within oneself.

Swayambhunath Stupa

Swayambhunath sits atop a hill overlooking Kathmandu. The eastern stairway that leads up to the temple is steep and is said to contain exactly 365 steps. There are so many macaques (monkeys) hopping around the wall and the steps as you get close to the temple that Swayambhunath is actually referred to as the Monkey Temple. There is a legend that a bodhisattva who lived on the hill grew his hair so long that he had a lice infestation. When he cast out the lice, they became the monkeys which now inhabit the temple complex. The sun was close to setting when I made it to the top of the stairs, and from there I noticed that I had the Stupa to myself.  Most of the Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who come to Swayambhunath do so in the morning. There is a monastery on the hilltop, but I was sure the monks must have been inside having a sunset service. So, it was just me and the monkeys. Although curious, the monkeys were not the brazen kind which try to pry things from your hands or stick their hands in your pockets scrounging for food.  I did the kora around the Stupa and saw that it was flanked by 2 tall Sikhara-style temples which had been built by a Hindu King many years after the Stupa had been constructed.  These 2 flanking temples gave “Swayam-bo” (another nickname) a much different look and feel than Bodhnath.  Instead of a Mandala design, which corral visitors into 4 escalating gateways in order to circumambulate each level and gravitate towards the center, Swayam-bo is just an open circle with 2 Sikhara temples off to its left and right. The 2 temples are separate and disconnected from the Stupa. Yet, despite this separation, Swayam-bo’s design physically links the 2 great religions that came out of India, Hinduism and Buddhism, and it is for this reason that Swayam-bo occupies an especially revered status in the minds of its pilgrims.

The Eyes of Swayambhunath

Swayam-bo’s eyes are also different.  While the eyes of Bodhnath are wide-eyed, blue, and somewhat ambivalent in their gaze, the eyes of Swayam-bo are narrowed, pale, and seem a bit cynical.  It is as if Bodhnath serves as the bigger beacon and broadly sends an “all are welcome” signal, whereas, Swayam-bo is more reserved and reticent. Swayam-bo may have a more scenic entrance than Bodhnath, but this entrance also requires the more arduous journey. It appears that one has to earn her keep in Swayam-bo’s gaze and this gaze also includes a third eye that is much more pronounced than the slight representation on Bodhnath.  The spiritual discipline and inward contemplation Swayam-bo radiates upon onlookers and pilgrims is more intense than the relaxed feel of Bodhnath. The prayer wheels around the base of Swayambhunath are more numerous, but smaller than those of Bodhnath. Each wheel carries with it the same 6-syllable mantra. I remember that when my eyes first met the eyes of Swayam-bo, I thought there was something familiar about the shape and feeling of those eyes. They penetrated through me and I could almost visualize the face that may have been behind those eyes. It was not one of the many depictions of the face of the Buddha that I had seen before. It was something or someone else. I was frustrated that despite my intense efforts at peeling through the layers of my memory, I could not place those eyes with a face from my past. I then realized it was a riddle.  The eyes, nose, and other elements of Swayam-bo may have individual symbolic meanings, but taken as a whole, there is a coordinated, veiled message there. That was what triggered the feeling of familiarity in me — there was a latent meaning that was literally staring me in the face. Bodhnath and Swayam-bo each convey the riddle differently due to their visual variations, but the understanding one can achieve after figuring out the riddle will be the same.  That is the power of these 2 Stupas and why they still stir such devotion. Their eyes beguile and beckon — they are at once fixed stares and reflective mirrors just as we are at once capable of great compassion and abject impurity.  They encourage and mind the faithful and that begets practice, method, and wisdom. Om Mani Padme Hum.

Out of India [North – The Great Vehicle]

26 Aug

Dubai was nothing more than a desert port with a creek that ran through it 20 years ago. Now look at it. I gazed out of the window of the Burj Khalifa which is currently the tallest building the world. This building itself was not even around the last time I was in Dubai some 3 years earlier.

View from Observation Deck of Burj Khalifa – Dubai, U.A.E. (2010)

At that time, I was flying to Kathmandu via Muscat, Oman. I remember being surrounded by all types of South Asians hitching a red-eye flight on Emirates from Dubai to Muscat and from there they were transferring to flights on Oman Air to Jaipur, Lucknow, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Chittagong. Each of these chaps carried with them the same style of briefcase with masking tape on the outside that spelled out their destinations in large English block-letters. I could only assume that these briefcases were stuffed with dirhams and dollars amassed during their stints as a wait staff, kitchen help, construction workers, housekeepers, and taxi drivers in Dubai. I was going to Kathmandu and was to land sometime between 7:30am to 8am. That flight was horrible because of the unbelievable body odor emanating from the gentleman who was sitting next to me. The only thing that got me through was the in-flight movie that played on a large screen from the front of the coach cabin. This was a Bollywood movie that had been released earlier that year and it was called Eklayva: The Royal Guard. It was in Hindi and had English subtitles. It starred Amitabh Bachchan and completely roped me in — so much so that when it ended I was wiping tears off my face and I looked around the cabin and saw a few Nepali men doing the same thing. But, the overpowering smell of B.O. then hit me again and I had to suck it up for another hour or so until we landed.

Barnes & Noble “franchise” – Thamel – Kathmandu, Nepal (2007)

The Thamel area of Kathmandu is a kindred spirit of the Khao San road of Bangkok with its cramping of backpackers and hostels. But, unlike the linear and more orderly Khao San, Thamel is a crooked corridor of fabric, fish, pashmina, wool and curio stalls — each entrenched within shaky looking buildings with rooftop terraces that are perched on a hill which is then in turn surrounded by the Himalayan foothills. I made the mistake of getting a cheaper room (no A/C – again a mistake) that opened up right above a busy bend of Thamel, and so the endless cacophany of bike-rickshaws, motos, squat Suzuki taxis, and other strange vehicular contraptions — each bleeping or blipping their horns — kept me awake each night. Although the Buddha had been born in Lumbini which is in southern Nepal, the vast majority of Nepalis practice Hinduism. Buddhism still had a vibrant presence over parts of Nepal and that was primarily due to huge numbers of Tibetan exiles who had crossed over the Himalayas during the last 5 decades after the Chinese annexed Tibet.  The Nepali and Tibetan Buddhists practice Mahayana (the “Great Vehicle”) Buddhism which is one of the 2 main schools of Buddhism that developed in the centuries after the Buddha’s death — the other school being Theravada (the “Doctrine of The Elders”).  The Mahayana school traveled North and then northeast out of India, while the Theravada school traveled South and then southeast out of India.  I had come to Kathmandu to see 2 very important Buddhist Stupas and to also receive my Chinese visa and Tibetan travelers permit in order to travel overland to Tibet.  On my first night in Kathmandu, I found myself on a rooftop bar drinking a couple of Gorka beers and eating the staple Nepali meal of dhal bhat: a platter of rice and lentils surrounded by small round tin dishes of vegetables, curried meat, and cucumber dip. I started with a few steamed yak meat momos as well (I would eat a lot of yak during this trip).  That night, I saw perhaps the best cover band in the subcontinent – there were 3 guitar players, 1 bass player, 1 drummer, and 1 conga player. This band played everything from “Kung Fu Fighting” to “Don’t Let Me Down” and the  audience and patrons loved every second of it. They even clamored for an encore after the band finished their set and they came back and sang 3 more songs.  The combination of the music, Thamel feel-good vibes, and pure air of the Himalayan foothills had me glowing that night.  Kathmandu still had a sliver of its 60s “freak street” cred to it. It was hard for me to believe that only 6 years earlier, the Nepali Crown Prince, Dipendra, had snapped during a royal family party and killed 9 members of his family including his parents (the King and Queen of Nepal) before shooting himself and dying in a coma 3 days later.  No doubt there was still tension in the air that summer because of the Nepali Maoist insurgency that was spreading through the country, but on that night at least things seemed to be centered and carefree. I wanted to slip away into the deep funk of sleep, but the characters of the Thamel night had other ideas. Not to mention that the cool air of the Himalayan foothills that I was expecting (hence the decision to get a room with no A/C) was a no-show, and instead, Kathmandu was blanketed with warm and heavy humidity. So, I thought about Mt. Meru and Everest looking over me out in the yonder. I knew they were close — just a bit further North. That cool air was within reach.

Part II (Cont’d) – Fire

18 Aug

It is said that for any Hindu the most auspicious place to die is at Varanasi. If the person dies in the Ganges river itself or water from the river is splashed on the person as he dies, then this results in the attainment of supreme salvation. The person escapes the perpetual cycle of reincarnation and is transported to Mt. Meru which is the center of the universe and is similar to the Western concept of heaven. I could see the smoke billowing and smearing into the hazy bend of the Ganges before me. Manikarnika was the last major ghat at Varansi and was located at the far end of the city from where I was. I began the long walk towards the smoke. This would not be the first time I had observed the ancient rite of the Hindu funeral pyre.

Cremations at Pashupatinath – Kathmandu, Nepal (2007)

I had seen my first cremation in 2007 in Pashupatinath, which is a large Nepalese Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva in Kathmandu. Pashupatinath has its own cremation ghats which have been constructed on the banks of the Bagmati river and cremations take place 24 hours a day. Observers can walk over a bridge to the other side of the river and can watch the cremations talking place from that vantage point. Some of these ghats have roofs and raised platforms and these were where the wealthy had their funeral pyres. Those of less means were cremated right on the concrete slab of open air ghats that were nearest the river bank. What do we know of funeral pyres in the West? Certainly, we have cremations, but those are done in the back room of a crematorium with such technological gadgetry and speed that you get an incineration. So, as with many aspects of the way we live life in the West, we can choose to have instant gratification in death. The Hindu cremation is almost artistic in its ritual and choreography. The fact it can be viewed out in the open by non-family and strangers gives it the added element of the public theatre. It may take up to 6 hours for the pyre to burn itself out in some cases. How to describe the first cremation I watched at Pashupatinath? The first thing I can say was that I had to accept the decision I made to watch. I felt I would be invading the privacy of the family who was conducting the ceremony and I did not want to just gawk. At the same time, it would be ridiculous to sit on the other side of the river and pretend that you were not there to observe the cremation. When the body appeared, it brought everything into focus real quick.

Anointment – Pashupatinath

My eyes locked onto the scene, and in fact, I think it would have been disrespectful if I hadn’t held my gaze. It would have been disrespectful if I had looked elsewhere while this most shared actuality of the human existence was taking place. The body was carried by 3 men who shuffled down the steps and laid the man down on the pyre that had been prepared close to the river bank. He was wrapped in deep orange-colored robes. His head, hands, and feet could be seen. Then, other individuals – who appeared to be family members of the man — applied ointment to the man’s face, hands and feet. This ointment was a kind of cow butter and then other offerings like camphor, mango leaves, tumeric powder, and juniper or sandalwood were placed on or near the man’s body. The actual wood used for the funeral pyre was corkwood I think. After the anointing was finished, another man ambled out of the temple doorway above the ghat and approached the body with a torch that had been lit from a flame inside the temple. There were dried fronds of some kind placed on top of and around the sides of the body, and then the man carrying the torch began to light these fronds one by one in a clockwise manner. These fronds produced a dense smoke and triggered the wood below to begin to burn. As the smoke rose and blew across the river, I caught a faint scent of what seemed to me to be like candle wax. I could detect nothing more. The family members chanted a few refrains as they walked around the body clockwise. Some of them turned and sat down on the stone benches above the pyre.  I then noticed that another pyre that had already been burning for some time before I had arrived was about finished. A man showed up with a broom and began to sweep the ashes and remnants of the corpse directly into the Bagmati river. After a few strokes, nothing remained of the existence of that person. He had been swept into the everlasting right before my eyes and the river had taken it from there. I watched the river flow away from that spot and could see far downriver without obstruction. There was a man who appeared to be standing in the river and brushing his teeth. A couple of semi-clothed kids were swimming and playing just a little further downriver from the man. “How the swift current of life continued – uninterrupted,” I thought as I got closer to Manikarnika. But, the river I was walking alongside now was the Ganges whose source was the Himalayas and here at Varanasi it was starving without the rains of the monsoon. There were only a few rowboats that were crossing between the sandbars and carrying people across from one side to the other.

Boats waiting for the Monsoon – Varanasi (2009)

Most boats were drydocked or stranded on the land waiting for the rains to come. But, as I neared Manikarnika there was suddenly a crush of boats and people were just sitting in the boats looking at the activities going on in the ghat. The buildings of Manikarnika Ghat were charred by thousands of years of smoke. They stood like blackened sentinels from another time and were strikingly absent of the color and light that characterized the other ghats. This part of the Ganges was like the River Styx. It was the underworld and like any underworld there were guardians. The guardians of Manikarnika I learned were called Doms — a caste of untouchables. I almost got run over by 3 of them when I was craning my neck to look at one Manikarnika’s buildings and unknowingly walked across the main throughway of the temple when the Doms blasted out carrying a body on two long bamboo rods. The Doms of Manikarnika Ghat earn their living by conducting the funeral pyres for those Hindus fortunate enough to make it to Varanasi. The Doms charge fees for burning bodies that scale from a base price to an “all the frills” package depending on what the family wants to do. Paradoxically, as untouchables, the Doms are the only Hindus expected to touch the corpses, and so they complete the ceremony by sweeping the ashes and throwing any remaining bones of the body into the Ganges. Unlike Pashupatinath, where I observed the cremations from across the river, I was right in the middle of the cremation ghats at Manikarnika. I was only a few meters away from where the pyre burned. I watched for about 30-minutes before I felt soot falling on my shoulders and face and then realized I was breathing in the ashes of human flesh. This didn’t unsettle me. I understood the shared mortality between myself and these ashes that were being carried up in smoke. I understood the meaning of what the Buddha had said to those who surrounded him as he succumbed to his own death that day in Kushinagar. Nothing is permanent – everything transitions into something else and you have to work out your salvation yourself. What I was observing (and inhaling) was one Hindu’s last step toward a salvation that he had journeyed to during his mortal days on earth. This person had lived, loved, been angry, sad, forgiven, grown, apologized, and died. Now, he was breaking free and ascending to Meru, or heaven, or nirvana. And I breathed it in. I became lost in this realization and watched the fire burn.

Periphery of Marnikarnika Ghat

When I finally snapped out of it, I noticed the sun was getting lower in the sky and I had to make my way back to another ghat where a ceremony was to be performed. This ceremony was a blessing to the Ganges that Hindus conducted at sunset of each day of the year. It was called the Ganga Aarti and it took place at Dashashwamedh Ghat.  When I arrived at this ghat, there were throngs of people already claiming spots on the steps and they crowded near 5 raised concrete platforms that faced the Ganges. There were lights in the shape of parasols above each of these platforms and bells hung from iron bars connected to these lights.  As the sun set, the ghat was packed and 5 priests — who looked very young — took their position on each of the platforms. A man who sat behind them with a couple of musicians began chanting and singing through a microphone. Then, each of the priests began performing the ritual of the blessing in unison. Each priest carried with him 5 elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space (in the form of ether) that were symbolized by a flower, a water spray with a handkerchief, a brass lamp, a peacock fan, and a yak-tail fan. As each element was introduced and offered to the Ganges, the priests waved the materials clockwise and given the dust that was still in the air  and the twilight conditions, each item created a kind of vapor trail that clearly hung in the air around the priest before dispersing.  Each element took on an ethereal form and I guess that was the idea of the blessing — to have the faithful experience a tangible divine connection with the Maa (Goddess) Ganges who begat and sustained life. The ceremony lasted for an hour and at the end the priests walked down from their platforms towards the Ganges. They each kneeled down and placed a circular candle with flowers (called a diya) in the river which was slowly carried off by the current. There was a congruence between what I had experienced at Marnikarnika Ghat and the Ganga Aarti blessing. Each day Hindus gave thanks to the Ganges through a spiritual and symbolic offering at Dashashwamedh, and then just a few hundred meters away, they sought salvation through the physical offering of their bodies at Marnikarnika. That was the supreme personification of balance. That is Varanasi.

Pilgrimage – Part II

14 Aug

The name, “Sarnath”, had a kind of sinister inflection in my mind. It reminded me of Golgotha. But, as I traveled there, I learned that Sarnath is actually shorthand for a longer word that means “Lord of the Deer.” It was now the name for the area surrounding the deer park where the Buddha had given his first teaching of the Dharma to his 5 companions. Sarnath is located about 13km to the northeast of the ancient city of Benares (Varanasi) and I would stay there for a few nights and take a day trip to Sarnath.

The Ghats of Varanasi, India (2009)

The funny thing was that I wasn’t too far off by thinking of Golgotha on my way there because Varanasi had a skull-like form and netherworld glow to it. Its vertiginous old buildings vomited out steps that led down to the banks of the Ganges below. And there was the dark plume of smoke that seemed to continually float above one of the ghats in particular. I would soon learn that this was Manikarnika Ghat — the pre-eminent cremation ground in all of Hinduism. I could faintly see this ghat in the distance and wasn’t ready to experience its power on that first day. As it so happened, I was only able to spend just an hour or so around the ghats that were near my Varanasi hotel on that first day. The water level of the Ganges was so low that large sand bars were exposed. These weren’t small banks of sand, but instead were large mounds that rose several feet above the ground. The clouds overhead started moving fast as a wild wind picked up and then the exposed sand bars took flight — meaning twisters picked up the sand and blew them with a ferocity toward the ghats. I was swiftly caught in a severe sandstorm and wasn’t able to breathe or open my eyes. I put on my sunglasses, pulled my shirt over my mouth, and ducked behind a wall. Incredibly, the sand whipped around the wall and swarmed over me. I could feel my ears get plugged up and things got muffled. For a few moments, all my senses were snuffed out in some way and I was in the black. I had no idea if anyone else was around, but the streets had to be deserted. It then dawned on me that the locals must have known about these sandstorms. The monsoon was late and it was the end of June of 2009. These early afternoon winds must have hit the Ganges with some regularity, so the shopkeepers, faithful, and cricketers alike knew when it was time to take cover. I had no choice but to make my way back to the hotel until the sandstorm subsided. When I got to my room, I was hoping to cool down and clean off. Unfortunately, there were constant rolling blackouts that kept knocking out the A/C and the lights. I washed myself in the dark and laid down on my bed to recover. I silently hoped that when I visited Sarnath, the deer park would live up to its reputation as being a place of serenity and calm.

Dhamekha Stupa – Sarnath, India

The next day I flagged down a Bajaj rickshaw and told the driver to take me to Sarnath. Cruising on these 3-wheelers – whether a tuk-tuk in Thailand or elsewhere – is always the same. You suck in alot of exhaust and hot thick air while dodging motorcycles, bikes, pedestrians, trucks, and cars. Once in a while, you get a driver that is drunk, whacked out, or just too eager to take you to some brothel. It’s usually fun in any situation though. The tricky part is having enough cash on you to pay the driver after you (hopefully) barter out the price in advance. The road to Sarnath was long and winding and we did have a bump with a motorcycle, but that was resolved with an apology and some pulling back of the bent parts into place. I was dropped off at the entrance to the archaeological site. I paid the entrance fee and walked into a green park which contained the ruins of an old monastery, a flattened stupa, and some old broken pillars erected by Ashoka and destroyed many, many centuries later by Turkish invaders. Looming above it all was the only monument that was still largely intact. This was the Dhamekha Stupa. It had been built at the location where the Buddha had given his first sermon to his companions. It was where the wheel of the Dharma had first rotated into the world. The Stupa conveyed a majesty and simplicity to it. It looked like a giant brick thimble from afar. It had a sense of utility. As I got closer, the intricate detail and patterns that still remained on the lower half of the Stupa jumped out at me: floral wreaths, swirling patterns, and overlapping shakti symbols (perverted into what was known as the swastika in 20th century). I walked around the Stupa 3 times clockwise and imagined myself becoming part of the wheel. That was the utility of this structure – its design roped you in and you want to glom on to its side and become part of its pattern work. Sarnath did still contain an actual deer park, but this had been moved to a newer area and outside of the archaeological zone where the Dhamekha Stupa sat. Just a little further up the road, a modern version of the Mahabodhi temple had been built during the early 20th century, and behind this temple was the deer park– although from what I remember the deer were penned up in a corral which was part of a zoo where a donation or fee had to be paid. But, given the crush of humanity that India teemed with, it was still a relief to have some kind of haven for these deer which were ultimately descendants of those deer that had lived in the park during the Buddha’s time.

Detail – Dhamekha Stupa

The Dhamekha Stupa itself dates back to about 500 AD and was built over an earlier stupa that Ashoka had built upon his visit to Sarnath in the mid-3rd century. Ashoka had also erected an exquisite 4-headed lion capital that crowned a tall pillar he had placed in Sarnath to commemorate his visit. This lion capital was struck by lighting and had fallen to the ground intact. It was now housed in the Sarnath Museum which was around the corner from the park. The capital was epic in scope and purpose. 4 lions placed back-to-back-to-back-to-back and other animals like an elephant, bull, and horse spaced below them. A large wheel of the Dharma was thought to have been built over the head of the lions, but that wheel has been lost. Below the paws of each lion appeared to be another wheel design of some sort. It looked like a wheel of a chariot, but I thought it could have been a rendering of the wheel of the Dharma. This lion capital is now the emblem that is set smack dab in the center of the national flag of India. So, the Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, had left a legacy that went beyond just making his own pilgrimages to the key places of the Buddhist’s life. In his quest to memorialize these visits, he created a symbol for a new country which more than 2000 years later would seek to gain independence and forge its own identity and nationhood. One could see the hand of the Sangha behind this legacy. Because again, the lion capital would never have made it through the marauding and colonial plundering that depleted much of the old Mauryan dynasty of Ashoka without the watchful eyes of the Sangha. Like Sanghamitta’s act to salvage the Bodhi Tree, I was able to see the Lion Capital at the Sarnath Museum because of the Sangha’s dogged preservation of this important relic. As I returned back to Varanasi, I mentally prepared for the next day where I was determined to make the walk to Manikarnika Ghat and into the beyond.

Part I (Cont’d) – Tree

8 Aug

The Emperor Ashoka ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the 3rd century BC. He had consolidated his kingdom and dynasty through many brutal wars. He was a destroyer. But, after one particularly horrific battle where he was left alone to survey the carnage of rotting corpses, burnt villages, and destruction he and his army caused, he had an awakening. He was disgusted at what he had done and how meaningless it all was. At that moment, he felt a warmth come over him and he swore he would change his life. Buddhism had taken hold of much of the subcontinent during the 200 years since the Buddha had passed. The Sangha had grown and become strong. This community filled many parts of Ashoka’s kingdom and so Ashoka sought out the Buddhist monks in his midst. He converted to Buddhism and adopted the Buddha’s teachings as his own. Going forward, he would live his life and root his kingdom and legacy in the name of the Buddha and practice only non-violence and tolerance. He had two children from his first wife – a son called Mahindu and a daughter named Sanghamitta – whose name meant “friend of the Sangha.” His two children would devote their lives to Buddhism and Ashoka himself set out to visit the key sites of the Buddha’s life: Lumbini, the Bodhi Tree at Magadha, the deer park where the Buddha gave his first sermon, and Kushinigar.

Bodhi Tree – Bodh Gaya

When Ashoka came to Magahda he saw the Bodhi Tree and he placed a grey sandstone slab under it to mark the spot where the Buddha had sat. Then, Ashoka commissioned the building of the original Mahadabodhi Temple. Ashoka loved the serenity of the forest and spent many days and nights sitting and sleeping under the Bodhi Tree. Legend has it that he spent so much time with the Tree that his wife became jealous. This jealousy drove her to the point where she poisoned the Tree and it rotted and decayed. Other traditions say that the Tree was toppled during a battle Ashoka had with another warring tribe who had sought to claim the forest and the remnants of the Magadha kingdom. We may not know what exactly happened to that original Bo Tree, but we do know that the young Princess Sanghamitta understood the importance of the Tree and was able to save a small cutting or sapling from the Tree after it had been felled. Fearing any reprisals from her mother or Ashoka’s enemies, she hid the small shoot in her long hair and took surreptitious care of it. Her brother, Mahindu, had already become a Buddhist monk and begun a mission to the south of the subcontinent — even as far as to the island nation of what is today, Sri Lanka. Sanghamitta was determined to take the cutting of the Tree to where her brother was since she knew the Tree would be safe there. She traveled under the cover of night from village to village until she reached the end of the subcontinent. From there, she took a boat and sailed to the northern tip of Sri Lanka. The cutting of the Tree was kept in a golden vase during the crossing from India to Sri Lanka. Once she reached Sri Lanka an advanced guard of King Tissa met her and they took her to the royal capital of Anuradhapura where Mahindu had successfully passed on the Buddha’s teachings to an eager people. Mahindu himself had taken to living in a rock cave just outside of Anuradhapura. (Little did I know while I was reading this story at Bodhi Gaya about Mahindu, a year later I would be fumbling [barefoot again] down a ravine while getting followed by dubious looking dogs as I tried to find this rock cave. It was off a plateau now called Mihintale about 13km away from Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. A “mango tree” dagoba had also been built on the top of this plateau marking the location where Mahindu had first met King Tissa. A very holy site for Sri Lanka Buddhists).

Rock Cave of Mahindu – Mihintale, Sri Lanka

Mahindu traveled to Anuradhapura to meet his sister there and she gave him the vase with the sapling. Then, during an elaborate ceremony, Mahindu, Sanghamitta, King Tissa, members of the royal family, and other monks planted the tree in an elevated mound. This all took place in the 3rd century BC. For more than 2000 years afterwards, this sapling grew and was taken care of by successive members of the royal family and the monks who lived in Anuradhapura up to the present time. What happened next was that centuries later when the original Tree in Bodh Gaya was toppled again by an invading army, the Buddhist order in Anuradhapura took a sapling from their tree – reverentially called Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi – and replanted it in Bodhi Gaya at the same site where the original Tree had sprouted. But, this Tree also was toppled and then in the late 19th century, the British viceroy or whatever who had control of th Bihar province had a new Bo Tree planted. It was this Tree that I saw in 2009. Although it was young (under a 150 years old), it was still mighty and massive with history. But, as I read the story about Sanghamitta I knew I would have to travel to Anuradhapura and see Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. And in 2010, I was in Anuradhapura — an electrifying plain strewn with enormous, bubble-shaped Dagobas which I will detail later — but first it was the Tree. The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree is the oldest “human tended” tree in the world. The monks in Anuradhapura have meticulous records of how generation after generation their order has taken care of the Tree. There were golden shrouds tied around knobby elbows of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi and various metal braces were placed around the tree in order to hold up and spread the weight of its lumbering branches. I had never seen such tender upkeep of any non-human being before. There were many pilgrims and lay people walking around the tree and praying in the covered shrines built around the tree. There was a rotating wheel of activity like being in a fair or carnival.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree – Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (2010)

I sat in a corner of the Tree complex and was covered by the shade of one of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi’s large, leafy branches. I clearly remember the feeling I had of just how insignificant my own life was. I had the life span of a gnat in the eyes of this Tree. No question about that. There was something undeniably supernatural about being in the presence of another living thing that was over 2 millennia old. When I thought back to Bodh Gaya, the connection this Tree had to the Buddha himself, and the journey the Tree had made with Sanghamitta to get to this place – it was almost too much to comprehend. Every culture or religion has its share of myths and legends that sustain and define its identity. The Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden has been passed on by tradition as bearing forbidden fruit. The Bodhi Tree was just the opposite – it was a catalyst that led to the receipt of complete Knowledge in the case of the Buddha. The Tree was then an object to be revered and celebrated. Here, before me was its 2,200+ year old descendant. It had been cared for by the Sangha and would likely live on for another millennia, or until the Sangha was no more. Would there still be a Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi without the Sangha’s care? Would the Sangha have still been able to be as strong as it was in Anuradhapura without something tangible like the Tree to motivate it and stay true to the Buddha’s teaching? The two’s destinies had been intertwined. Each needed the other, but if either was to over-indulge on their attachment to the other, then there would be conflict and loss of purpose. As I stood up and was ready to leave the Tree complex, I noticed a few twigs and leaves that must have fallen from Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. I picked up a couple of them and put them in my bag. I guess I needed to stay attached to this experience in some way. I had done the same thing at Bodh Gaya the year before. Back to Bodh Gaya then. From there, I set out like the Buddha had to the deer park.

Pilgrimage – Part I

4 Aug

Mahabodhi Temple – Bodh Gaya, India (2009)

Like the Buddha, I was 35 when I first entered the forest at Magadha. But, that was a coincidence of course and most of the forest had long been cleared. The kingdom of Magadha itself was nothing more than a historical footnote. I had been pent-up for 15 hours in a rolling tin can called the “Marudhar Express” with no A/C because I had foolishly gone cheap and had settled for a 3rd class ticket. Big mistake – especially when the train stopped with no explanation in some field in the middle of nowhere for 3 hours and the temperature was about 90 degrees or more and I ran of water. But, I loved it in some masochistic way. I had the feeling of “earning it”. When I finally arrived, I was rabid in anticipation of what I would see and soon it appeared before me. A slender pyramid pierced above the forest canopy. It was unlike any other structure I had seen before – yet it was oddly familiar. It brought to mind some kind of Mayan-Egyptian hybrid and unlike much of the rest of the north Indian plains that I had recently traveled through, there was no trace of any Mughal design. There was a reason for that since the original design for this pyramid-shaped temple dated back to the 5th or 6th century, and the first Mughals did not appear on the scene until nearly 1000 years after. The area was now called Bodh Gaya and even the air had a different smell and thickness to it. This had little to do with humidity. It was late June and the monsoon had not yet arrived to the subcontinent. The land was parched to a dusty crisp after being beaten into submission by a cloudless sky and scorching sun for the last 3 months. But,the trees were still green and the grass around the temple complex was damp. Big spiny lizards scurried about. Something about the air was heavy. I tried to slow my approach so that I could take in my first looks with reverence. I stood at the top of a small hill that looked down into the temple complex. The Mahabodhi Temple was the focal center of the complex which contained hundreds of smaller shrines and other mini-temples erected in strategic corners. There was a lot to absorb because of the Mahabodhi Temple’s tiered and complicated design. The exterior of the temple had different levels and had intricate carvings of the Buddha and stories from his life cascading up and down and wrapping around the structure. The central spire was replicated in the form of quarter-sized spires that were built around it and yet connected to the same base platform. There was so much geometric detail and patterning that it was dizzying. I walked down the stairs and made my way to the temple’s opening. Inside the main chamber of the temple was a beautiful statue of the Buddha in a sitting pose with a saffron robe tied tightly around his body. There was one nun in a coffee-colored robe sitting on the floor — off to the right hand side of the statue. She was in deep prayer and I dared not disturb her. This Buddha image was thought to have a very close likeness to the Buddha himself and was very old. It also sat behind glass which was rare to see. The true “seat” of the Buddha though — the vajrasana or “diamond throne” — was directly behind the temple. This was the truly epic sight and as I went back outside and continued to walk clockwise around the temple, I stopped. There in front of me was the Tree. I will get into the story of this Tree later on, but when I first saw it, I thought it looked like a huge lung. The way its branches spread wide and low rather than grow straight up made it appear to breathe. The area around the trunk and base of the tree had been gated, but it was easy to look in between the railings. A grey slab of sandstone had been placed by the great Emperor Ashoka on the spot where the Buddha had sat over 2 millenia ago. The slab was now covered by a shiny orange-gold fabric and above it was a golden roof with lotus-like designs peering down. This was the diamond throne. The Great Awakening had flowered from that very spot.

Vajrasana (“Diamond Throne”) – Bodh Gaya

The Buddha himself had told his followers and the other people who had come to see him as he reclined in Kushinagar before his death that it would be of great benefit to them and anyone else who was interested in his teachings to visit those places associated with key events in the Buddha’s life. It was no surprise then that the site of his Enlightenment was very quickly turned into an important pilgrimage destination. After many centuries of thousands of monks, lay people, and other pilgrims streaming in and out of the forest to pray and bear witness at the Mahabodhi Temple, the diamond throne, and the Tree, the surrounding town itself was transformed into something resembling a Buddhist college town. It was dotted with many Buddhist learning centers, schools, and temples. Bodh Gaya became a microcosm of all the Buddhist cultures around the world. I could tell the difference between the Sri Lankan, Thai, and Tibetan monks who were living in the town based on the colors of their robes. As I ducked in and out of these different temples, I could see how each bore the unique and idiosyncratic hallmarks of the country it represented, but I also saw how each was still connected to the wheel the Buddha had spun. There was no doubt – even after the other travels I would make – the location of the Buddha’s Enlightenment now served as the spiritual heart of the world religion he had spawned. It was a tangible nerve center that pulsated out to all the other sects and traditions of Buddhism. Around the grounds of the Mahabodhi Temple were signs that marked each of the areas where the Buddha had meditated during those 7 weeks after he attained Enlightenment. Each sign made reference to some remarkable insight or interaction the Buddha had experienced at the applicable location. I tried to view the Tree from each of these 7 different vantage points. I envisioned the Buddha doing the same thing — looking back to where his old self had last been before becoming Awakened. I sat down in one of those spots and was able to relax and enjoy the peace and quiet of the moment. My swollen bare feet had been through a lot over the last week and I thought it best to give them some quality time off, so I brought out a book and did some reading. I learned about Princess Sanghamitta and it was because of her prescient act many centuries ago that I was able to have this experience.


1 Aug

After many, many decades of traveling through different lands, kingdoms, villages, valleys, mountains, plains, and forests, the Buddha’s body began to fail him. He had grown old and was prone to sickness. Yet, he was determined to travel back to the place of his birth one last time. He told Ananda, one of the Buddha’s closest disciples, that they would travel to Lumbini and there the Buddha would pass on. Ananda wept and protested against the Buddha’s wishes. “When the Buddha is no longer in the world, who will teach us?” Ananda asked. The Buddha admonished him thus, “What more is that you want of me? I have taught you all I know with an open hand. I have kept nothing back. There is no hidden teaching, Ananda. My teachings are your teacher now. Follow them and you will stay true to me. Take refuge in yourselves and be islands unto yourselves. Hold fast to the Dharma as an island. Hold fast to the Dharma as a refuge. Resort to no other refuge.” Ananda then went to prepare the other disciples for their trip to Lumbini. As they began the journey, the Buddha became ill, but he pressed on the best he could until his body could no longer carry him. He did not want to leave his followers without speaking to them one more time, so as they neared the village of Kushinagar he told Ananda to prepare a mat for him to lay down upon between 2 large sala trees. The Buddha slowly lowered his body onto the mat and rested on his right side with his head propped up on a cushion so he could face his disciples. Although he was just a simple monk, there was something regal about how he reclined before his followers. Others in the village heard the Buddha was near death and was preparing to give his last sermon, so they gathered around him. They too were captivated by the Buddha’s “lion pose” as it thereafter became called. The Buddha was using his frail body to teach these people about death and that there was nothing to fear. “The moment has at last come. Do not forget that death is but the vanishing of a body. The body was born from parents and nourished by food, so sickness and death are unavoidable. But, although the human body must vanish, the wisdom of Enlightenment will exist in the truth and practice of the Dharma. You who see only my human body, do not truly see me. But, you who accept my teachings, you are the one who see me. So, you to whom the truth has been made known, make yourselves masters of it, practice it, meditate on it, and teach it to the others. Satisfy your desires only in the same way that the butterfly sips nectar from a flower, but do so without destroying its fragrance or its texture. Be mindful of the truths I have tought you and actively pursue the right practices in order to keep to the eightfold path that leads to Nirvana.” As the Buddha spoke, his eyes became heavy and he started to sink into a deep meditative state. Just when it appeared the Buddha had finished, he spoke his last words: “All things must grow old and be dissolved again. Seek out the truth and work out your salvation with diligence.” The Buddha then entered into the ultimate state of bliss. Some of his disciples despaired at the thought of going on without him, but Ananda and a few others assured the rest that the truth which the Buddha had taught them would live in their minds and they could now go out into the world, preach the Buddha’s message, and continue to foster the community that would support them along the way. The disciples and village people began to anoint the Buddha’s body with perfumes and garlands. Some music even began playing while the Buddha’s body lay in its final repose. A continuous stream of people passed by in order to pay their respects. Finally, when they were ready, they lit the funeral pyre that had been placed around the Buddha and the sky turned black — not from the smoke, but because of the sudden absence of both the late day sun and early evening moon. The earth quaked and a forceful wind snaked through the forest shaking all the trees and causing flowers and leaves to fall on the ground. When the flames of the pyre had become extinguished, so had the Buddha attained Nirvana. The disciples and other people who stood over the Buddha’s remains then did something that only human beings would do. They let their feelings for the Buddha take over and they all wanted to claim a share of his earthly remains. There was an overwhelming desire these people had to stay attached to the Buddha through some physical link. Not even Ananda nor the Buddha’s other most trusted disciples were able to stop this, and instead, they ceded to this desire. They agreed to distribute the Buddha’s relics — pieces of bone, clothing, hair, and teeth — into eight parts. Whoever received any relic would have to preserve them within the walls of specialized shrines — what became Stupas, Dagobas, or Pagodas — depending on the country in which these were constructed. So, although the Buddha had said otherwise, his body had not quite vanished. Instead, his relics would travel far and wide across the land and ocean and there would be stories passed on from generation to generation about the perilous and epic journeys some of these relics would make until they reached their final resting spots. And when they did reach their destinations, the most amazing shrines rose — created by the mortal hands of the faithful and the communities which supported them. For each would receive the Buddha’s message and each would take refuge.

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